Perhaps the story of the great Jewish music in America is truly that of its encounter with African-American music. Three terrific new albums traverse the traditions of Afrobeat, jazz and reggae, while at the same time staying informed — in very different ways — by music more traditionally associated with the Jewish sound.
That two of the three projects incorporate the word “Zion” in their respective band names signifies an ethnic connection that isn’t merely musical, but perhaps mythic, as well, evoking less a physical locale than a dream, hope, perhaps even utopia, created through music.
— Jake Marmer
Tzadik Records, $14.99
Some bands take years to cook up an album. Zion80 rocketed — from its premiere in winter 2011, to extended residencies at New York’s jazz club The Stone, to a full-blown album release — in less than a year and a half. That’s a testimony to the great synergy of the 13-piece band which joins music of Fela Kuti and Shlomo Carlebach. Zion80 is world music in its truest sense. Carlebach brought the Hasidic chants, ritualistic songs and cantorial interludes of Jewish Eastern Europe into frameworks of American folk; Kuti summoned the sounds of the African diaspora into traditional Nigerian music.
Seeing Zion80 live, I remember wondering how this energy could retain itself in a recording. Because the band is staffed with some of New York’s finest improvisers, the air of constant surprise seemed crucial to the musical experience. Besides, the band’s leader and founder, Jon Madof, is also its conductor, and during live shows, he directs his ensemble, altering its course as the performance unfolds. And just as his mode of conducting has little in common with conducting in traditional Western music, the dynamics within the band are vastly different from those of a traditional orchestra.
Obviously Madof’s conducting is something the album listener cannot experience, yet the recorded tracks reveal Madof’s kaleidoscopic arrangements. Hearing one composition’s bridge performed in a duo that suddenly swells into a quartet and then into a 13-instrument powerhouse is breathtaking. From too-good-to-be-true wedding band to avant-garde troupe to ritualistic collective, the band can morph and soak you in hot, gorgeous rhythms.
Between the Lines, $16.32
Upon winning last year’s Independent Music Award for best jazz album, Israeli-born pianist Alon Nechushtan cited as his influences J. S. Bach, Duke Ellington and Charlie Chaplin. To these three, listeners of Nechushtan’s latest release, “Ritual Fire” could add another person: the experimental American painter Jackson Pollock, whose term “action suite” Nechushtan borrows to explain the workings of the new album. The album is largely free-form, with melodic elements that erupt into a larger conceptual whole.
The record’s highlight is the special appearance by clarinetist Harold Rubin— a legendary figure of the Israeli art scene. Now in his 80s, Rubin is also known for his work as a painter, poet and architect. A native of Johannesburg, he developed his jazz chops by collaborating with African musicians. In the 1960s, the South African government threatened Rubin with charges of blasphemy when he painted a subversive depiction of Jesus Christ. Rubin then escaped to Israel.